Today I had the pleasure of observing the latest Master Performance Coach (MPC) Award taking place at the National Tennis Centre. The highlight was getting some insights on what makes Andy Murray one of the best players in the world. Since writing this block APA athlete Alijaz Bedene has been installed as the official British number 2, so stand by for some of our own insights from APA coach Martin Skinner on what makes Alijaz one of the best players in the world too!!!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the National coaching qualifications framework, the MPC is level 5 on the coaching ladder, which is the highest coaching award in Tennis. Included in the list of candidates were a number of ex professionals including Anne Keothavong and Mel South. So it was a great opportunity to get some insights from them and Emma Anderson, physiologist to the latest Davis Cup team versus USA, as well as Louis Cayer, Tennis coach to the Davis Cup team.
I went along to sit in on the strength & conditioning module. There are approximately 8 modules on S&C that the tennis coaches will learn about during the duration of the qualification. Today I was there to listen about ‘energy system’ training.
After 60 minutes theory on anaerobic and aerobic energy systems the group went into the lab to do a practical. Six ‘lucky’ volunteers had a go at:
- Anaerobic capacity test- 30-second Wingate test
After a 5-minute warm-up the athlete did two short bursts of four pedal strokes to get ready, firstly at sub maximal and then at maximal effort. Then after a short rest they were asked to stay in the saddle and pedal flat out for 30-seconds. This test was designed to measure anaerobic capacity.
- Repeated sprint test / Power depletion test
Ema Anderson, the physiologist took us through a Wingate bike version using 6 x (7-seconds with 23-seconds rest).
You can also do this using sprinting protocols such as:
6 x (30m with 20-seconds rest) or 12 x (20m with 20-seconds rest)
This gives you an idea of how much power they can hold on to and actually reproduce. This is very relevant to Tennis performance. Unfortunately it is a test which very few Tennis players have done at the NTC. Often the athlete and their coach aren’t willing to do a test like this fearing it will ruin their tennis training due to its high demand.
Aerobic Capacity Treadmill test: VO2max test
I’ve written about the protocol they use at the NTC in a previous post which you can read HERE.
To be honest, these kind of tests might not immediately tell you much about someone’s tennis fitness- ie., how well they cope with the demands of the game. Being efficient on the bike is different to the treadmill which is different to running on the tennis court. But it is so useful to know what kind of general condition someone is in before they step on the court.
If someone is getting tired on court maybe it is as simple as they are not in shape ‘generally’ and have a low aerobic and anaerobic capacity as measured by the tests above. Or maybe they have a good capacity but have poor power because they can’t repeat it, and the anaerobic power tests would show that too. If you at least know this information about your player it can certainly help you rule certain things out if someone is struggling on court to meet the demands of the game.
So what makes Andy Murray so much better than the rest?
Louis Cayer commented that he was very surprised that Andy got his heart rate up to 180 bpm when rallying during training at the Davis Cup. At the same time one of the other younger squad members was at 160 bpm. Now you might conclude that the younger player was more conditioned.
This is why you need to know your player and know your sport. Andy is most probably one of the most highly conditioned players on the Tour. Andy simply has an unrivalled work ethic and even during rallying will work his feet and body really hard to get in the perfect position, bending his knees and being quick with his adjustment steps. Unfortunately I don’t have a clip of this but here is a clip of another great role model, Kei Nishikori. This session isn’t necessarily of the intensity I am talking about here which would get his heart rate up to 180bpm, but he is someone who I imagine has a similar desire to work.
When Louis Cayer showed the other player his heart rate (who was hitting with Andy) he started to work his legs more and move his feet and he too was able to get his heart rate up.
What Andy has according to Ema is a desire to work hard during every practice. Despite being 6 or 7 years older than the younger players in the Davis Cup team he was as determined as ever to set the bench mark for the others to be judged against.
According to Ema, Andy was more ‘comfortable being uncomfortable,’ in that he was able to cope with a high intensity drill of 1-minute rallying which would work him at around 190 bpm. Importantly he could do two things:
- Keep the quality of the ball characteristics of his shots very high- even when working at near his maximum heart rate
- He could repeat this quality with only 30-seconds rest, and he was ready to go again
The next group of British Tennis players looking to follow Andy into the Top 100 and possibly Top 50 would certainly do well to take note. Are they prepared to go somewhere that ‘hurts’ physically, embrace the grind, and if so are they good enough players to be able to keep the quality going over and over? Andy always had the natural talent for the game. Don’t believe me- one of my informants tells me Andy only played four hours of tennis per week until he was 15. You need to be pretty talented to win major junior titles if you only play four hours per week! But later in his development he trained his ability to out last his opponents with a desire to work hard in training. That’s one of the aspects to Andy’s character and ability that separates him from the rest.
Train children like the pros?
I definitely encourage Tennis coaches to use heart rate monitoring. It was certainly a great tool that can inform some really good discussions within the Tennis team. The group discussed whether children need to be training like this.
Ema said it is important to remember that Andy has trained this tolerance over several years of working at this level of effort. He has 6 or 7 years training in the bank of this type as a pro working with a full-time fitness team which until recently was Jez Green and Matt Little.
I have no problem with children pushing themselves in similar types of drills at certain points in their training week. But I believe in an important philosophy:
Minimum stimulus load versus Maximum destructive load
I personally like to keep my ace cards in my pocket for when I need them. Yes, it is important to expose the younger players to the demands of the game (as it is played at the pro level) by doing some pretty tough drilling. This way they have an understanding of how tough the game really is at the top level.
But equally, you don’t need this to be the focus of training with younger athletes. You will find they need less stimulus and will still adapt physically. Also, this will enable them to execute their techniques optimally during the ‘skill hungry’ years, in the absence of lots of fatigue.
The coaches on the MPC Award were split into three groups and had to design a drill that they thought would bias each of the three energy systems:
- Alactic ATP-CP system
- Lactic acid system
- Aerobic system
This created some really good discussions and helped raise the coaches’ awareness to the actual physiological stress on the body.
Alactic ATP-CP System
For the Alactic ATP-CP system, the group asked the player to hit four shots on the full run, and have 30-seconds rest between. The heart rate of the player consistently rose to about 85% -90% maximum heart rate during the recovery period. The player said they felt they hadn’t had enough time to recover in 30-seconds, so it became more of a speed endurance drill. It was suggested to either reduce the number of shots to 2 or give them longer rest up to a minute.
Lactic Acid System
For this drill the plan was to make the player run side to side for 1-minute with 30-seconds rest between. The time of 1-minute is a really interesting value because this represents the upper limit of the lactic acid system (usually around 20-60 seconds). So it really depends on how capable the player is in keeping high quality for 1-minute. If they can’t this will quickly become a poorly executed drill or the 1-minute will only be sustained if the intensity is dropped and the drill is done for aerobic work with maybe only 15-seconds recovery to keep heart rate up.
The group wanted to do a continuous drill for 5 minutes in a three, with the person on their own hitting to two players on the other side for the full 5 minutes.
My eye brows raised because I know that 2 vs. 1 is usually done as a Lactic Acid system drill, for 30-60 seconds at high intensity, and they rotate around so the work to rest ratio is 1:3.
Not surprisingly the player’s heart rate quickly rose to 92% of their maximum and they stopped after 1-2 minutes and said that it was an unrealistic drill!
The team agreed to keep her moving but in a smaller area either staying in the middle or staying in one corner like you saw in the video with Kei Nishikori
Well I hope you found this blog interesting. I think it is vital that any performance coach has an appreciation of the effect of someone’s fitness level on their ability to perform on the court; and most importantly the effect of the drill on the player’s ability to perform on the court!